Dumbo fails to live up to its high expectations

By COLE DOUGLASS | April 4, 2019

Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA 3.0 Michael Keaton plays the villainous businessman in Disney’s Dumbo.

For the life of me, I cannot figure out why Disney decided to add Dumbo to its list of live-action adaptations. It’s easy to understand why they remade Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast; the films are so deeply ingrained in our cultural childhood that it is difficult to imagine a world in which the remakes weren’t successful. Dumbo, on the other hand, is nowhere near as popular a character, and his story seems like it wouldn’t translate very well to a more realistic film.

That being said, there was still a chance that the live-action Dumbo would turn out to be a good film considering the success Disney has seen with these remakes previously. I was excited to hear that Tim Burton was directing the film, and I hoped that his talent for stylization and over-the-top visuals might help recreate the energy of the original cartoon. There were some interesting scenes in the promotional materials, and the CGI rendition of Dumbo was pretty cute once I saw it in motion and was able to look past its cold, dead eyes. Although I won’t say that I went into the theater expecting a masterpiece, I did have hope that the film would be fun to watch.

Unfortunately, Dumbo doesn’t quite hit the mark with its transition to live action. It struggles to establish an engaging narrative and interesting characters, and there are too few moments of visual spectacle to make up for that deficit. I’m sure that the adaptation process was difficult and the filmmakers were doing their best with the material that they had, but Dumbo ultimately fails to create a lasting impact and probably shouldn’t be very high on your watch list as a result.

Dumbo opens not with the titular elephant but rather with Milly and Joe Farrier, two children living at the circus where their father (Colin Farrell) worked before he enlisted in the war. Shortly after their father returns, the two children discover that the circus’ latest attraction — Dumbo, a baby elephant with oversized ears who has been separated from his mother — is capable of flight. 

As they attempt to use Dumbo’s growing fame to reunite him with his mother, the Farriers must also confront the evil businessman (Michael Keaton) who wishes to enlist the elephant in his own amusement park.

It is really hard to summarize Dumbo’s narrative because the whole thing feels very disconnected and shoddily constructed. On the one hand, it isn’t really a story about Dumbo because the film basically treats him as any other animal. There’s no sense that he has any sense of interiority, so he isn’t really the best character to structure a story around. As such, the rest of the circus performers serve as the main characters that really drive the plot forward. However, the story is still very heavily centered around Dumbo, so the side characters needed to have compelling narratives of their own or a more personal connection with Dumbo that would justify their presence in the story.

Almost all of the characters in Dumbo are incredibly one-note and uninteresting. Few, if any of them, experience any sort of character development, and none have any believable emotional connection to Dumbo that explains why they are so heavily invested in his journey. The narrative spends so much time focusing on Dumbo that the side characters’ arcs have to be crammed in and awkwardly resolved without any of the groundwork that would justify the resolution. Some of these plotlines could be interesting, like Milly’s conflict with her father over her desire to become a scientist, or her father’s inability to cope with the loss of his wife. Unfortunately, they all have to be pushed to the side until the very end of the movie, which results in half-baked, unappealing characters that spend most of the plot wandering around and reacting to Dumbo. 

In terms of the actors’ performances, none of them are particularly amazing, though there doesn’t seem to be that much to work with. The child actors are fine, and Danny DeVito does his best as the circus’s owner and ringleader. Although Michael Keaton certainly brings an eerie sense of foreboding to the film’s antagonist, his presentation is so overtly ominous that it is hard to fathom why any of the characters wou ld ever trust a single word that he says. Of them all, Eva Green’s performance as Collette, a trapeze artist who works for Keaton’s character, is probably my favorite. There’s not much that stands out about the role – if you’ve seen Green in Penny Dreadful, then you probably know what to expect – but Green does an excellent job of conveying her character’s growing bond with Dumbo. 

The film also suffers from editing that ends up being confusing or unintentionally hilarious. There are a number of shots that drag on for too long, while others feel like they should have been cut entirely. Early on in the film, a minor antagonist is accidentally killed during a circus performance, and there’s a shot of his dead body being loaded into an ambulance that is completely at odds with the tone of the rest of the film. Likewise, some shots were framed in such an odd way that I had to stop myself from laughing at the odd construction, and I really don’t think that the filmmakers were in on the joke. 

All that being said, I cannot deny that Dumbo features quite impressive visuals. As I mentioned earlier, the CGI rendition of Dumbo is pretty cute once you get past its creepy eyes, and all of the circus performances are absolutely gorgeous. One such performance uses bubbles to recreate the drunken elephant scene from the original cartoon, and it was a joy to watch. Even some of the slightly more mundane moments, such as Collette training on the trapeze with Dumbo for the first time, were dynamic and well shot, which really helped keep my attention locked on the screen. I almost wish that there were more of these visually impressive scenes, as it would have helped keep my mind off of the weak narrative.

Dumbo’s climactic scenes are absolutely amazing and without a doubt my favorite part of the entire movie. Without giving away too much, the circus performers have to organize a heist and they use all of their performance skills to help them infiltrate the villain’s lair, resulting in one of the most incredible and silly scenes that I have ever seen. The film goes full camp, and it was impossible not to get caught up in the scene’s energy; it was the first time that I felt like the filmmakers weren’t taking themselves too seriously and that they really enjoyed making the movie. It might not have made any sense narratively and it cannot make up for the movie’s other flaws, but the climax was a tantalizing glimpse at the better movie hiding away within Dumbo.

In the end, although Dumbo has its strengths, those strengths aren’t nearly enough to compensate for boring characters and an unfocused narrative. If you’re a fan of the original I would recommend that you see it, if only for the visuals; just make sure to keep your expectations low. Otherwise, you probably don’t need to check it out. 

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